Stag party friends (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

The virtues of the boys’ club

Men need single-sex spaces, too

Artillery Row

A couple of years ago, a group of women stormed Hampstead Men’s Pond to protest about the admission of transwomen to the Women’s Pond. You can be forgiven if you didn’t notice — the event was covered but prompted no media storm, no wave of outraged commentary. Nor did any of the male bathers in attendance seem to mind.

The increasing prominence of trans issues has put a fresh spotlight on single-sex spaces. Yet as the muted response to the above illustrates, it is a one-sided row. If people somewhere are getting het up about transmen in male-only spaces, they’re being very quiet about it.

Likewise, the tenor of the broader debate also seems to be focused on female spaces. “Few things in life terrify me as much as the thought of a room full solely of women, writes Marie le Conte. A colleague contrives to make hen parties sound like an elaborate form of torture. They would be improved, she implies, by inviting men along. Not doing so “feels odd … in 2023”.

I would be very sorry to see the end of the all-male stag do

Does it? Perhaps I’m just a crusty reactionary, but even in the current year I would be very sorry to see the end of the all-male stag do. 

Perhaps I have just not been on the right (wrong?) ones, but I’m at the age where I’m going to my fair share. On one memorable occasion, I was deposited outside a church in Oxford by an obliging stagmate for a friend’s wedding after a formidable weekender in Nottingham; the groom’s stag had been the weekend before. 

Each one has been different — the activities, the people, the locations. Not every moment was edifying, but they have all been great, in their own way. 

Part of the magic is that it’s a group of men who will in all likelihood never assemble again. Put together a list of your top ten or fifteen friends, and you’ve probably invited them all to a party at least once. The same number sans les dames? Probably not.

It’s also an increasingly rare opportunity to actually experience an all-male environment in a society where the overwhelming majority of spaces, both professional and recreational, are more-or-less sexually integrated. 

This does not, in my experience, trigger a lapse into locker-room banter (at least not amongst men in their thirties). Nor does it require falling back on our maleness to provide sufficient “shared experience” for the group to cohere — that’s usually what the organised experiences are for. What it does do is create a different, slightly more relaxed vibe, excising the frisson that attends when you put a large mixed-sex group of people together and get them drinking — at least if a critical mass of them are single. There’s less pressure to impress, to perform. 

Would I want this to be my social norm? Not for a moment; aforementioned frisson is normally the difference between a good party and a gathering of couples with refreshments. Precisely because the social opportunities of mixed settings are different, so are the pressures. Even in 2023 it is nice to escape them from time to time.

Yet it seems increasingly difficult to do. Outside of organised sports and some gay and lesbian establishments, single-sex recreational spaces are thinning. One by one, the private members clubs succumb to the pressure to get with the times. The smoky wet-led pub, de facto male only much of the time, is dying out.

Many of the drivers of this have been great, and so too the effects. It’s great to be able to go to lunch with a female friend without her partner present, without anyone thinking anything of it — something which would have attracted comment when my parents were my age. This is not a cri de cœur for a time when life’s default setting, outside the home, was either segregated or chaperoned.

The Victorians built segregation into the very layout of the ponds

One can welcome the waning of the previously overwhelming power of such sentiments whilst recognising that there is still a useful, albeit smaller, role for the sort of spaces they created.

Yet the two I frequent are both relics of an earlier age. The Victorians built segregation into the very layout of the ponds (although thoughtfully also provided a mixed one). Meanwhile, the Turkish baths at Porchester Hall remain admirably segregated six days a week, which surely owes much to their being in operation for almost a century. One hopes a recent laxing of the rules for the mixed-session Sundays — no longer nominally just for couples, the horror — is not a straw in the wind.

As a young man, I never understood the appeal of joining an all-male club. More of my friends were women than not, and exposure to life in the young Conservatives showed me that a room without women was both deeply depressing and too easy to end up in, even without a door policy.

Today, however, I get it. I invariably choose the men’s pond for a swim unless in mixed company, and not just for the diving board. I would probably not attend the baths at all if they were fully integrated. 

I think I owe this shift in perspective in part to all those stag dos, and all the good friends of good friends whom I will probably never meet again, but hope to, and who were only ever in one place at the same time because the groom didn’t invite the women along.

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